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The Truth About Animal By-Products in Skin Care

Seahorse in Skin Care
May 11, 2017 Reviewed by Marta 8 Comments

I wasn’t expecting to stumble upon a cream with seahorse extract when I attended a Korean Beauty Showcase hosted by the Korea International Trade Association last month. Or horse oil. The use of animal extracts is not confined to K-beauty, so I decided to dive deeper to learn what these creatures, or their byproducts, are doing in anti-aging potions and lotions. Do they really have benefits — and is this practice even ethical (even to a non-vegan like me)?

Seahorse extract
Aren’t seahorses endangered, I initially thought. They look so delicate, and we know that their reef habitats are threatened by climate change. I was surprised to read that we don’t really know if extinction is imminent due to “lack of data” — which in this day and age seems a bit fishy — about the populations of the various species of seahorse (there are more than 50 by the way). Some species are, however, known to be endangered.

So I was a bit surprised to learn that seahorse is a popular component of Chinese medicine and a whopping 150 million kg is consumed in China every year. That doesn’t sound good for the future of the animal. Then, I found out about seahorse farms. Rarita claims that its Seahorse Antioxidant Cream sources its key ingredient from Jeju Island, where there is quite a bit of exotic fish breeding going on.  As an interesting aside, it turns out that seahorse breeding is difficult because the female chooses the male, in which she deposits her eggs. Yes, the male has to gestate the eggs!

After all that, what is seahorse doing in a face cream anyway? Apart from vague references to peptides and the traditional Chinese Medicine use for skin infections, I’m still not really sure.

Horse oil
This was another first for me, courtesy of the K-Beauty Showcase. I was told by my guide that horse oil is very close to human sebum and that horses had not been slaughtered to make a moisturizer. They are killed for their meat, though.

Some Korean beauty brands get quite specific about their horse oil, claiming that itcomes from fat, or the mane, or the base of the tail. Also, where the horses are raised is important (to the people peddling this stuff), and Jeju Island cropped up again in this context. So many of the Korean beauty brands I saw claimed their origins in Jeju that I was compelled to ask my guide if was a very big island. The response was peels of laughter.

Bird’s nest
This is another animal ingredient that has been trending in Asian skin care for a while. It’s actually spit from a bird known as the swiftlet and is mostly protein with some carbohydrates. There is, however, some credible research that it has epidermal growth factor and is being used in research on cancer.

Still, this won’t justify its use in my skin care regimen. This fad has become so popular that nests are taken before the birds have a chance to lay their eggs. Meanwhile, in the last few years, swiftlet nest farming has become big business.

Shark liver oil
Squalene is a very common moisturizing ingredient as it is naturally present in the lipid barrier. Until recently, it was sourced from shark liver oil and although plant-based alternatives have become more ubiquitous, it is a good idea to be sure of your cream’s provenance. As recently as 2012, a report estimated that 90 percent of shark liver production goes to the cosmetics industry — that’s nearly 3 million sharks per year.

One reason for this seems to be cost. Olive oil and other plant-based squalene’s are 30 percent more expensive than shark oil. Meanwhile, shark species face extinction, or at the very least, being endangered.

Cone snail
This sea snail recently got the attention of medical science when it was discovered that its venom could be used as a powerful painkiller. Venom from the cone snail is packed with peptides (as much as 100 different peptides in every snail), and in small amounts, these neurotoxins prevent muscle contractions. So, not surprisingly, it turns up in moisturizers claiming Botox-in-a-jar effects.

In their natural habitat, they have been known to kill grown men, so potent is their venom. While this may not endear them to you, it is worth sparing a thought for their conservation. Once considered pretty safe from extinction, some species (67 of the over 600 in total) have been put on red alert list as threatened with extinction. Also, keep in mind that there are many proven neuropeptides that work wonders on line and wrinkles — without hurting the environment or the wonderful species on it. 

  • August 5, 2017

    by roxanne

    It is a little unclear what the purpose of this article is. You aren't enthusiastically supporting the use of these products, but yet aren't really saying that they should not be used. It is kind of wishy washy. One of your responses says you will never sell products from endangered species, but that leaves the rest of the animal world. So its okay to kill living creatures to put into cosmetics as long as they are not endangered? I don't buy anything that is made with animal products, or that is tested on animals. It is disturbing that anything should die for a skin product, and your tone is very flippant about it. This is one place I will never shop.

  • May 26, 2017

    by Diane

    I don't want products where live beings lost their lives. I'm interested in anti aging products that work not a line cover or puffy flesh real youthful results are a product worth purchasing. Thank you

  • May 12, 2017

    by Amelia

    Every time I see something like this article it makes me want to cry for the animals! I cant tell you how pleased I am that you dont participate in these disturbing gimmicks to sell products using the beautiful creatures we have been blessed with in out animal kingdom!!!!

  • May 11, 2017

    by Sandy Bonesteel

    This is so informative. I never thought about animals by products in skin care. Now I will be watching labels to avoid them. Thank you for this article.

  • May 11, 2017

    by Cathy

    Thanks, Marta, for a very disturbing article. And thanks for being an Earth-friendly company.

  • May 11, 2017

    by marta

    Sorry Lisa, I didn't think I had to state the obvious. I am not selling and never will any products with byproducts from endangered species.

  • May 11, 2017

    by Lexi

    I am so glad to see your information on animal ingredients in skin care products. With so many really good choices of skin care and makeup that do not animal test or use animal derived ingredients, I do not and will not purchase or use any that do.

  • May 11, 2017

    by Lisa

    I hope by reading this article I am understanding you are against all those ingredients. If truth in aging sells anything associated with these ingredients or animal products of any kind then I will have to discontinue buying from​ TIA!

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